I’m participating in Bible Study Fellowship’s session on Romans. Their ‘study’ is mostly a presentation of standard reformed protestant understandings and I find to useful to collect a few quotes, in response, from N.T. Wright’s ‘The Day the Revolution Begin”
from beginning of chap 12 of Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began (the first of the 2 chapters on Romans in that book).
The first four chapters of Romans have for many years been read as though they were a statement of our old friend the ‘works contract’. Humans were supposed to behave themselves, they didn’t. God had to punish them, but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they can no go to heaven instead. That, with small variations, is how Romans 1-4 has been read. It is frequently referred to as the “Romans road.” When people in churches preach and teach the kind of view that I have been warning against throughout this book, it is to Romans that they go to “prove” what they are saying.
And I am convinced that this is mistaken. That is why we need, in this chapter and the following one, to look at Romans in much more detail. At this point we cannot avoid getting our hands dirty with some detailed reading of the text. I have suggested in the previous chapters that the four gospels are far more important than has usually been supposed for understanding the early Christian view of what Jesus’s death achieved. But sooner or later we must come back to Romans. Debates about the meaning of Jesus’s death in the New Testament tend to stand or fall right here.
The general structure of Wright’s two chapters is:
a) general intro/outline
b) chap 5-8 in detail
a) intro on Passover and Atonement
b) usual reading of Romans 3 and its problems
c) redemption re-imagined
Wright focuses on Rm 1-8 .. not much detail on rest of Romans, for complex reasons (not all of which are due to the focus on “Debates about the meaning of Jesus’s death in the New Testament tend to stand or fall right here.” More on Romans 9 and following would, I think, require Wright to write more about the nature of ‘The Church” than he thinks appropriate at the present time.)
anyway at the end of the general intro in Wrights chap 12, there is this brief overall outline of Romans as a whole:
That true worship, contrasting with the failure seen in 1:18-26, is what Paul sees Abraham offering in 4:18-22. The result, for those who share Abraham’s faith, is expressed in cultic terms: “we have been allowed to approach, by faith, into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate the hope of the glory of god” (5:2) — the “hope of God’s glory” being, in the Jewish world of the time, the hope for the divine Glory to return at last to the Temple. That is part of the meaning of Romans 8, where the indwelling Spirit means that the Messiah’s people not only share his “rule” over the new creation (8:18-25), picking up from 5:17), but also share his priestly intersession for the world (8:26-27, looking forward to 8:34). This then sets Paul up for the prayer theme, which holds together chapters 9-11, starting with lament (9:1-5), continuing with intercession (10:1) and ending in praise (11:33-36). This framework means that Paul is exemplifying and embodying the idea of a renewed priesthood standing between God and his people. It should be no surprise that chapter 12 begins with an equally “priestly” theme:
“so my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Worship like this brings your mind into line with God’s.” (12:1)
Here again the section that is introduced with this “cultic” appeal concludes with a similar call to worship: the point of the whole gospel is to fulfill the promises to the patriarchs and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy (15:8-9). Nor should we then be surprised (tho some readers have been) when Paul moves into the concluding section of the letter by describing how he has been called to work “in the priestly service of God’s good news, so that the offering of the nations may be acceptable, sanctified in the holy spirit” (15:16). All of this could be considerably expanded. This summary ma be enough to alert us to the fact that, in Paul’s presentation of salvation, the GOAL is for humans to share the “royal” and “priestly” ministry of the Messiah himself.
If that is the goal, how is that goal attained? This is the particular puzzle that Romans presents to our present topic. Granted all this framework, what does Paul say about the way in which the death of Jesus has dealt with this problem (idolatry and sin) about brought about this result?
from chap 13 of Wrights book, on the problems with the ‘Romans road’ reading of Romans 3
this understanding of Rm 3:21-26 leaves vv 27-31 stranded. It appears to change the subject from “how you acquire this ‘righteousness’ ” to “how Jews and Gentiles come together into a single faith family.” That, indeed is what many writers and preachers have imagined.
So too chapter 4 becomes seriously undervalued. Many who expound Romans regard Abraham in this chapter merely as an “example” of “someone in scripture who was justified by faith.” Sometimes the chapter is simply labeled as a “proof from scripture” of the “doctrine” that Paul has supposedly been expounding in chapter 3. But this misses the whole point.
This reading also ignores the plain meaning of 2:17-20. It flattens out Paul’s careful statement of the vocation of “the Jew” (to be the light of the world) into simply another aspect of the general truth that “all have sinned” This in turn leaves 3:1-9 high and dry, or at least very difficult. This short passage consists of a rapid fire series of questions and answers that make excellent sense if we read 2:17-29 in the way I am suggesting, but very little sense any other way. Again many commentators and preachers have noticed this; some very careful and “conservative” expositors declare that the passage is too complex and puzzling to be much help. This in turn results in a failure to see what Paul is getting at in 3:21-26.
Finally, the “problem” Paul is addressing is assumed to be simply human wrongdoing (“sin”). However, in Romans 1:18-32 and in the summary of that passage in 3:23 we find a deeper element as well. “Sin” is rooted in idolatry, the swapping of the divine Glory for images. Here Paul is exactly on the map of Second Temple Jewish writings. But many today, eager to talk about “sin,” have forgotten that it is the second-order problem. The root cause of the trouble is worship of idols.
These exegetical problems point to the underlying theological difficulties with the usual reading. This usual reading is all about how we get “right with God” in order to “go to heaven”; but Paul never mentions “going to heaven,” here or elsewhere in Romans, and the idea of being “right with God,” though related to Paul’s theme, is usually taken out of the specific context he intends. Ironically, the usual reading takes “going to heaven” (or some near equivalent) for granted and then complains if, instead, someone tries to reintroduce into these chapters the themes that Paul demonstrably IS expounding. It all become so complicated, people grumble — when what they really mean is “I am so used to reading this passage one way that I find it hard to switch and consider other opinions.”
In Israel’s scriptures, to which Paul explicitly appeals in 3:21b (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”) God’s righteousness is not simply God’s status of being morally upright. It is, more specifically, God’s faithfulness to the covenant — the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world.
This idea of God being faithful the covenant clearly seems to be Paul’s meaning here in Romans 3. Within the larger unit of chapters 1-4 as a whole, 3:21-26 is framed more particularly between the argument that starts at 2:17 and the exposition of Genesis 15 in chapter 4.
Romans 2:17-3:9 is concerned, first, with the worldwide purpose of Israel’s divine vocation (2:17-20), second, with Israel’s covenantal failure (2:21-24; 3:2-4), and third, with the problem that this poses for God’s “dikaiosyne”, his “righteousness (3:5). How is God to be faithful to the covenant — to rescue and bless the world through the Jews — if Israel is faithless” Romans 4 is then all about Gods covenant with Abraham, its worldwide purpose, and the way n which, through the gospel, God has now been faithful to that covenant. These two (Israel’s vocation to rescue the world; God’s covenant promises to Abraham to give him a worldwide family) obviously go together. The divine purpose through Israel for the world is the subject of the passages both before and after 3:21-26. There is every reason, therefore, for taking “God’s righteousness” in 3:31 in its normal biblical sense of “covenant faithfulness.” There is every reason too to understand the display of that “righteousness” as connected with God’s somehow rescuing the world from idolatry and sin, through Israel, in order to create a single worldwide family for Abraham. The actual arguments Paul advances on either side of our passage, in other words, strongly support a reading of dikaiosyne theos and cognate ideas in 3:21=26 ad “covenant faithfulness.” This fits with what we have just seen about the passage itself, which ends with an emphatic reference to God himself being “righteous,” rather than to “God’s righteousness” as a moral status or quality that God credits to others.